Apparently, it wasn't

all

Winston Justice's fault.

That was the subtext, the humming through the wire, the first time the Eagles lost to the New York Giants this season. Justice replaced injured William Thomas at left tackle that game, leading, not entirely coincidentally, to a dozen quarterback sacks and the transformation of New York defensive end Osi Umenyiora from vowel machine to sack machine.

Any offense can be disrupted by that kind of thing, and the Eagles certainly couldn't be judged too harshly on the 16-3 loss that evening. At least that's the way they told it.

Ten weeks have fallen off the calendar since then. Thomas was healthy this time around, and, after two weeks of recovery from minor injuries, quarterback Donovan McNabb was back in the lineup, too.

So there has to be some other direction to point the finger after this one, some explanation as to why the Eagles' offense was spectacular in the first three minutes of the game and couldn't get out of its own way in the final 57.

The 16-13 loss yesterday was all on the offense. Not that the defense was perfect, but it did force two turnovers and gave up only one touchdown. A second-half sack might have been nice, but this was not a loss to hang on the defense.

"Miscues, miscommunications and mistakes," McNabb said afterward, asked to explain the offense's disappearance.

We are 13 games into the season and the losses are still piling up. Miscues, miscommunications and mistakes. These are issues that are supposed to be dealt with in training camp and, maybe, in the first few weeks of the season. Not in December.

The case can no longer be made that this is a good football team playing badly. Just a hair off, as the coach said repeatedly earlier in the year. He's not saying that now. He's not saying much of anything, and wouldn't even allow that yesterday's loss pretty much summed up the story of the season.

"I'm not going to sum it up because we're not done yet," Andy Reid said.

Not officially, perhaps, not mathematically, but this team is well-done, burnt to a char, and as tired of this season as you are.

One of these afternoons, perhaps as soon as Sunday in Irving, Texas, the decimals will finally make their point and release everyone from this ridiculous talk of making the playoffs.

"Somebody told me it would take a miracle," linebacker Omar Gaither said. "Well, I believe in miracles."

Easier than believing in the Eagles at this point.

Yesterday's loss means they can't catch the Giants, so one of two NFC wild-card slots is out of their reach. They are also two games behind the Minnesota Vikings with three to play (yes, holding the tiebreaker), and the Vikings don't have a game remaining against a team with a winning record. Assuming a New Orleans win over Atlanta tonight, the Eagles are also one game behind four other teams.

And - the biggest factor of all - the Eagles are awful.

This is simply a mediocre football team that steadfastly finds ways to lose instead of ways to win. The Eagles have now lost five games by four points or fewer, the sign of a team that is either about to arrive or about to depart. Which are they?

"I've been part of seasons where we lost a lot of games by three or four, and then things started to pick up just when we needed them to," McNabb said. "Then, the next year turns out to be a great season for us."

Get those season-ticket renewals in early, folks. The 2008 season looks bright. The team president can't imagine a set of circumstances in which McNabb is not the quarterback, which, amazingly enough, he is convinced is a strong selling point.

It wasn't much of a lift yesterday, though. McNabb was all right. He was OK, but the Eagles need much more than that. The longest completion of the day for McNabb was 19 yards. He took three sacks, even though the play-calling was designed to take pressure off his back.

The usual litany of reasons is available. Goes like this: The receivers aren't good enough, the protection is spotty, he's trying to make something happen, it's that darn Cover Two defense, and so on. All of which contains some truth, but none of which changes the outcome. And isn't that kind of the idea?

"You can't sit around feeling sorry for yourself about it," Reid said of the team's predicament. "You have to get the answers, make sure we answer them, and finish up strong."

Reid can still talk like that, at least for another week. Find the problems, fix them, keep pushing toward the postseason because . . . you never know.

Well, the rest of us know. And, unlike the coach, we can say it out loud.

Finish up strong, if you like. Whatever. But just finish already.

Contact columnist Bob Ford
at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com.
Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.